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Ron Werneth
Japanese Naval Aviation & Author

by Ron Werneth

Looking back on my experiences in Japan, to this day, I simply cannot believe that it happened.  If someone told me ten years ago that I would one day live and research in Japan I would tell them that they’re crazy.  Anyhow, this is my story. I grew up as the son of a man whose passion was history especially WW II.  My grandfather and great-grandfather also fought in both WW I and WW II with the German Army.

So quite often, as a child, I was watching war documentaries with my father or going to airshows.  However, I think my passion was really sparked after my father took me a local airshow that featured several flying warbirds such as the only flying B-29 named “Fifi”, P-40E, etc.  Wow!  I thought this was simply incredible.

As I got more into WW II aviation history, I joined the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), started to meet veterans and get involved with the restoration of a Lockheed PV-2D bomber.  This really got me “knee deep” into aviation history and I began to write magazine articles to generate interest in our PV-2D restoration project.  Furthermore, I also read anything that I could get my hands on regarding WW II aviation especially the Pacific Theatre.

When I read books about the war, I realized something was missing; the personal experiences/feelings of the Japanese pilots and mechanics who participated in the war.  Granted, there are a few wonderful books written by Henry Sakaida, Osamu Tagaya and others.  However, I still thought that there was a lot of things that could learned about Japanese Navy airmen.  For example, what were they really like?  How did they feel about attacking Pearl Harbor?  Did they hate Americans during the war?  What did they see? Feel?  These are some of the things I often wondered but couldn’t find the answers in a book or movie.

I realized that the only way to find my answers was to move to Japan and interview these veterans while they were still alive.  However, I couldn’t speak or write Japanese (still can’t!).  So, I started to write Japanese museums, collectors, historians for several years before I met some people who understood my passion and agreed to help me.  This all took place back in mid-1990s and I ultimately moved to Japan in 1999.

I ended up working my tail off in Japan with my Japanese friend Keigo “Hammer” Nakahama and doing interviews just about free chance that we could get such as on weekends, vacation, etc.  At the same time, I worked as an English teacher to help pay the bills.  Remarkably, we met all the veterans by word of mouth and by mutual veteran friends.  Ninety-five percent of the veterans could not speak English and for sure would not have granted interviews had we not followed Japanese protocol. 

Most Western people don’t understand that you could not just write these veterans and expect to be granted an interview.  They are very private people and in many cases talk very little about the war even to family or friends.  Consequently, I cannot give my veteran contact’s addresses to other people because it could destroy our friendships that have developed after years of work and trust.

My trusty buddy “Hammer” worked incredibly hard to not only to translate our interviews properly but also to guide me through various Japanese cities and also on proper Japanese etiquette.  To make a long story short, we ended up traveling all across Japan and interviewing almost fifty veterans; which I still can’t believe! We also met many veterans that either died soon after our meeting or were not interviewed by anyone. They provided us with incredible wealth of insight on their war experiences, how they felt, what they saw, etc.  I ended up coming back to America (almost broke due to the high cost of living in Japan) but it changed my life forever.  I also met my wonderful wife Kaori during my stay.

What are my future plans?  Well, I plan on using about half of my interviews for my first book Beyond Pearl Harbor: The Untold stories of Japan’s Navy Airmen.  The book will be the first exclusive English-language oral history of not only WW II Japanese Navy pilots, but also the vital mechanics who serviced their planes.  It will all be in their words which were taken verbatim from my interviews, letters and rare wartime diaries.  All of their stories will be supported by research from the national archives in both Japan and America along with my own research.  Finally, all of these incredible accounts will be illustrated by a large amount of rare wartime photos which were provided by the veterans, the national archives and many different veterans.

My other project is to collect everything related to WW II Japanese navy pilots and mechanics.  For example, flying gear, uniforms and insignia.  I strongly feel many of these priceless artifacts are simply thrown in the garbage when veterans pass on and their surviving family members don’t know what to do with their wartime mementoes.  I plan on using these items to help teach others about the war.  For example, I once brought a WW II Japanese fur-lined flight suit to school and students couldn’t believe that people used gear like this to fly combat.

I have been fortunate because many veterans gave me their artifacts to preserve for future generations.  My ultimate goal is to create a traveling museum that I can use to teach people especially the younger generation about the war.  I feel kids need to know history, otherwise, all of those men died in vain.  They also need to know the cold hard facts about what really happened and the terrible destruction brought on by the war.  This is the only thing (in my eyes) that will prevent future wars from happening.

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I will end with a quote from veteran Haruo Yoshino, who flew from several carriers and land-bases during the war.  “I never thought if the war was right or wrong, not at all.  In those days, I didn’t question the war itself either.  I never thought that it was a wrong war.  It’s not for me to say if it was right or wrong; that’s a historian’s job.  I have no regrets at all.  Many people say that the war is wrong now, but we didn’t have any doubts in those days.  Maybe there are some opinions by historians, but it was a war between two nations.  If one country starts a war, the people don’t have any choice but to follow the nation’s policy.  Japanese people fought for Japan, and American people fought for America.  So, it was a war between two countries.  Both Japanese and American soldiers were fighting for their own nations.”

I have written articles for FlyPast, Flight Journal, Aeroplane Monthly and Classic Wings.  Most of my articles have been about museums or warbird recovery/restorations.

World's Oldest P-47 To Be Restored (Flight Journal)
Pacific Adventure (Aeroplane Monthly)
The Zero Lives Again! (FlyPast)
Exploring The Warbirds of Japan (Flypast, Februry 2000)
A Fortress From The Grassroots (Aeroplane Monthly, June 2000)
Zero Restorations (FlyPast August 2005)

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